“Scream of the crop” (GMO fears)

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Anti-GMO extremists are known for their macabre corn men masks, memes of fruits taking bites out of children, and vehicles topped with tomato-fish hybrids. None of this has any relationship with reality. Online activists frequently employ ad hominem attacks in the form of evidence-free shill accusations, while also accusing posters of being Monsanto employees, whom they compare to Joseph Goebbels.

One of the more infamous anti-GMO crusaders, Nassim Taleb, contributes little to the dialogue beyond personal-attack Tweets. He refuses to discuss the issue with any adversaries, blocks anyone who disagrees, and never offers any science. I once attended an anti-GMO seminar in which the speaker claimed the USA’s enemies will eventually be able to stroll in and take over the country without firing a shot because GMOs will turn us into non-thinking zombies.

But even among the more measured anti-GMO types who do not foment these irrational fears, there are still misunderstandings of the process. However, there are no risks with genetically modified crops that do not occur with conventional breeding methods.

The latter can even pose more risks, and this is ironically more likely when countries ban genetically modified crops. That’s because when this happens, agricultural companies may develop new strains though mutagenesis, which requires subjecting plants to radiation or dousing them with toxic amounts of chemicals in order to randomly move genes in the hopes of producing new traits.  

Contrast this to genetic modification, where scientists take a gene that yields a desired trait then insert it into a crop that may lack this distinction. Mutagenesis is much less precise than genetic modification, yet remains unregulated, widely used, and unchallenged by Taleb, Vandana Shiva, Vani Hari, and other self-appointed guardians of food safety.  

One falsehood is that GMOs are more susceptible to producing allergens. In fact, genetically modified foods are required by regulatory agencies to be tested for their allergen presence. Any genetically-modified crops that are shown to have one cannot be sold or distributed. Meanwhile, crops that are known to be allergens to some, such as peanuts, are not subject to this regulation.    

There are also accusations that GMOs are prone to uncontrollable spread. But GM crops are produced by managing a small, precise change to a plant, making spread unlikely. Meanwhile, conventional breeding mixes thousands of genes from parent plants, then recombines them to produce mutations that could potentially increase the potential to spread.   

Perhaps the most frequent criticism is that heartless corporations are controlling GMOs. Yet large companies and conglomerates, heartless or otherwise, have their hands in all food production methods.  Whole Foods, which specializes in organic produce, brings in more than profit than most of companies Food Babe demonizes for making money off GMOs. Besides, farmers are free to use non-GM seeds, to buy seeds from corporations that sell exclusively conventional crops, to buy locally, or to form a coop.

A similar argument centers on patents, and concern over this is wrong for the same reason as above. The supposed idea is that malevolent Monsanto, satanic Syngenta, and detestable Dow will horde seeds and control the world’s food supply. Yet conventional crop variants can also be patented and corporations that work with conventional breeding will sue anyone who violates the patents.

Then we have an alleged increase in use of pesticides. But GM applications usually match a specific toxin to a certain crop, meaning that genetically-modified crops use fewer pesticides. Additionally, there are charges that genetically-modified foods will negatively impact bees and butterflies. But because these crops rely mostly on pesticides that targets a specific pest, they will no impact on other insects. In fact, bugs are more likely to be killed by broad-spectrum insecticides that are used in traditional farming.

Finally, there are fears expressed about genes moving between species. First, GM crops do not always involve the use of a transgene. They can also remove genes that would otherwise produce a toxin, or they can change genes to give the crop a desirable trait it might lack. And again, conventional crops also involve moving of genes between species. Emil Karlsson cited these examples on the website Debunking Denialism: “The conventional crop triticale is a hybrid between wheat and rye. Also, horizontal gene transfer between bacteria and plants occur in nature all the time and well-documented examples include the common sweet potato.” Yes, nature has produced a genetically-modified organism. Now there’s something for Taleb, Shiva, and Hari to freak over.

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